Oidon's Champon, the Un-Tonkotsu
Cold, wet days call for hearty comfort dishes. One of our favorites is a popular noodle soup from Nagasaki, Japan, called champon. It's a distant cousin of ramen, sharing the same Chinese roots. Examples in San Francisco are few and unremarkable, but stellar versions can be found at Izakaya Mai in San Mateo and at Ringer Hut in San Jose. Recently we ventured to Oidon, a cozy second-floor restaurant in San Mateo, to sample the champon there.
Some people theorize that the name "champon" derives phonetically from words meaning "to eat" in Fujianese (Hokkien dialect). Others say it evolved from the word "chanpuru," an Okinawan slang term for "mixture." In Korean restaurants, jjampong is the red chile version of the same dish; jjampong bap replaces the noodles with rice.
Champon is a hodgepodge of ingredients, a worker's meal. It's typically combines pork, mussels, shrimp, squid, chopped fishcake, bean sprouts, carrots, cabbage, and noodles in a broth made of seafood and chicken. The seafood items can vary depending on what's seasonally available in the area where it's made. The noodles are cooked in the broth, so champon qualifies as a one-pot meal. All items are combined before serving, finished with a healthy dose of either black or white pepper.
Diners often mistakenly assume champon's pale, murky broth to be tonkotsu. Though it does contain pork, it doesn't share tonkotsu's multiday preparation or its use of pork bones and fat (collagen). Worse, the Internet is filled with misinformation on the subject. For instance, Wikipedia gets it wrong when it says lard or pork bones are involved in the basic recipe. Good champon has a very flavorful broth that isn't heavy, a good alternative for anyone who dislikes the fattiness of tonkotsu.
At Oidon, our bowl of champon ($9) contained a modest amount of seafood, but that didn't diminish our enjoyment. By the time we'd finished it, we felt like our batteries had been recharged ― we were satisfied, ready to tackle any task. Oidon's extensive menu includes ramen, nabeyaki udon, and many appetizers. But go for the champon.
Oidon: 71 E. Fourth Ave. (at S. San Mateo), San Mateo, 650-342-6748. No website.